Do you have the "Write Stuff?"
Perspectives on Publishing for the First-Time Author
By Richard C. Lindberg
Copyright © 2002

All writing flows from the heart. And while the path from idea and inspiration to an autographing session at Barnes & Noble is circuitous and occasionally heart breaking, I am convinced through years of simultaneous disappointment and elation, that a reasonably well-written manuscript will eventually find its way to publication though it is certainly easier to place a work of non-fiction than a first novel.

It all hinges on what the author is willing to accept, and how far down that path of travail he or she is willing to journey. For some, placing a manuscript is a matter of months. For others, like Helen Hooven Santmyer of Ohio, the best-selling author of ...And Ladies of the Club, publication of a first book can take years, even decades. Two-and-a-half-million copies of her one and only published novel are in print.

Volumes can be written about the life of John Kennedy Toole (one already has, as a matter of fact, Ignatius Rising, by Rene Pol Nevins and Deborah George Hardy). Here was a sensitive, rather sheltered southern writer from New Orleans. Toole abandoned all hope and strung a garden hose to his auto exhaust pipe in Biloxi, Mississippi late one night in 1969, rather than continue to joust with his editor Robert Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster, who kept prodding Toole with revisions and suggestions to his great comic novel The Confederacy of Dunces.

Believing it would never be published to his own satisfaction, the despairing novelist saw no other way out of his present difficulties than death. He was only thirty-one. The Confederacy of Dunces was not only published, but it became one of America's best-loved novels, garnering the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

The moral of the story, dear reader, is to never lose hope and do not become blind-sided by Nay Sayers, skeptical book agents or apathetic publishers.

The simplest advice I can give to any aspiring author is to write with conviction about what you know best; the places, the people, and the incidents drawn from life, studied, witnessed or experienced. Nationally acclaimed novelists Stephen King (who said it best when he advised a group of writers to create characters that are true to themselves), Carl Hiaasen and Sara Peretsky tapped inspirational flow from their own immediate surroundings: novelist King, a native of Maine; Paretsky's Chicago; and the cabanas of South Florida in Hiaasen's slightly off-kilter novels.

There is always the inherent danger of being tagged a "regional writer." I've certainly been accused of that literary sin over the years, but the region I write about happens to be Chicago, and what a perfect setting it is for stories of mirth, mystery, and mayhem.

Norman, Oklahoma can be a fascinating locale to a reader from Calumet, Michigan if the author has something important to say about the town, and the story is compelling. We cannot diminish the wellspring of personal experience in the place we call home.

You must ask yourself what it is the meaning and purpose of why you write. If your motivations are linked solely to financial gain, take your chances gambling on pork bellies, not books. Realize that unless you are awfully lucky, amazingly gifted, or in the right place at the right time, your life is not likely to change with the publication of a first book. In other words, do not quit your day job, at least not yet.

If overnight fame is what you are after, step down from the clouds right away. As excited as you may be to see your first book on the shelves of Borders Books and Music, chances are your co-workers and social acquaintances are less impressed. At the water cooler one morning as you gather your senses and prepare for another grim day in the "real world," expect to hear the dismissive remark, "Oh, yeah, I've thought about writing a book myself, but never got around to it."

Only if it were that easy.

Make a commitment to write five to ten pages a day, schedule permitting. I do not believe in "writer's block." Never had, and I never expect to either. There are no blank sheets of paper, only lazy writers.

If all you can manage to do is scribble a grocery list, you have at least written something new for that day. And if you think about that grocery list, there are all kinds of story possibilities in the realm of fiction lurking in the vegetable aisle. Romance, science fiction, comic irony. Think about it and create, keeping in mind that some book ideas should only be articles. Solicit the opinions of literary people, or your agent if you have found one.

Agents come in all varieties of flavors and sizes: lazy, diffident, scolding, and as haughty and arrogant as the cartoon fop in silk hat and monocle gazing down at the unwashed masses from the masthead of the New Yorker magazine.

My unintentional sarcasm is not meant to diminish the work of the many accomplished literary agents in this country who have turned dreams to gold.

Find an agent who takes a genuine interest in your work and shepherds you across that great divide from substance and ideas to contract, and you have found your true champion. Find an agent who doesn't try to shove a silly book idea down your throat simply because it is something the agent knows will be an easy sell, pitched in one fast phone call, and you have a friend for life.

In the mid-1980s I had as my mission, to publish To Serve & Collect, my history of the Chicago Police Department (and the first book-length volume since 1887). The agent I had engaged at the time was not keen on the idea. She knew it would require more than just licking a postage stamp and over-nighting the manuscript to New York. It might even involve making a few phone calls to editors in high places and some gentle arm-twisting.

This particular agent, well known in Midwestern literary circles, advised me to stick to baseball, and write a biography of White Sox great Carlton Fisk. Well, I guess there comes a point when you have to break with your past or risk ending up like the actor portraying "Jethroe," the yokel from the Beverly Hillbillies — pink-slipped and permanently exiled to central typecasting.

I had no interest or desire to approach the unapproachable Fisk or writing his biography. My interests had shifted away from writing about baseball toward broader Chicago historical themes, and though there would be one or two more books about the Chisox in my future, my ambitions at that point were focused squarely on the police book. The manuscript found a home only after the agent and I had parted company. I refused to be deterred.

Personally, I would not recommend an agent for the first time author. Agents hate unsolicited manuscripts from unpublished authors. Hate them! They will say they do not have the time to read the volume of manuscripts thrown over the transom. If they don't demand an upfront reading fee, the wording on their rejection slip is often terse and insulting.

My second agent was cold-blooded in her condemnation of "slush pile" authors. Ice water ran through her veins when she curtly informed a victim of the Holocaust that her memoir of the camps was not only poorly written, but unpublishable dreck. I made the mistake of sending several writers to her during our business dealings, but each one was turned away with impunity and occasional savagery. She was the death of hope.

There is a marvelous book called Literary Market Place (LMP) that you can easily access in the reference stacks at the local library. Read it. Know it. Consult it. For it is the "Bible" of the industry. Study the A-Z listings of American publishers and agents. Then zero in on one or two of them that you think might give you sincere consideration, being very careful to avoid the "vanity" publishers to whom you pay a large sum of money, to print your book. (A bad idea).

If the subject matter is non-fiction, prepare a chapter by chapter outline with an explanation of the book, your rationale for writing this book, and the audience you intend to reach. Submit sample pages of your best material. For a work of non-fiction, do not send in the entire manuscript.

There is high probability you will eventually locate a publisher somewhere in these United States if the subject matter is broad enough to attract a wide enough audience to justify the publisher's investment in you. You will stand a far better chance of placing the manuscript with small presses and regional publishers then sending an unsolicited manuscript to Random House or Avon, where un-agented material is likely to be vanquished to the "slush pile," (that gentle reader, is truly the death of hope).

The small, or independent publisher will review the proposal and reply in a sincere fashion (well, most of the time). Regional publishers, university, and small presses pay authors advances ranging from zero dollars up to $5,000-$7,000 on the high end of the scale. That is the financial reality; or what we call the "nut." It is one reason why agents are usually not interested in repping "small" books or reading manuscripts submitted by unknowns. They have bills to pay just like you and I, and no one gets rich in a zero sum game.

Do you still have the stomach for these kinds of disappointments, or does the stock market sound infinitely more promising, if money and fame are the name of the game?

The small presses cry poverty all the time and bank on a writer's overpowering ego and ambition to break into print, when they mail a contract offering a paltry $500.00 advance for the right to publish a manuscript. Because there is no shortage of desperate authors eager to publish their first work for a pittance, the small publisher's talent pool is varied and extensive. He doesn't have to pay the big advance in a buyer's market, you see. And in most cases it is probably true that the independent lacks the financial means to reward the first-timer even if he wanted to. (Sometimes I wonder how some of these storefront operations can legitimately justify their existence, but that is another story).

At this juncture it boils down to rising expectations versus dwindling returns; taking into consideration what you envision for yourself ten or fifteen years down the road. If a rookie wants to play in the big leagues, he must first accept a tour of duty in the low minors; small towns, long bus rides, and seedy motels. Conversely, the first-time author should not be terribly surprised to discover that the small press he has chosen is a struggling "Class A ball" operation -- only capable of placing the book here and there, but not everywhere.

Marketing is non-existent. In vain, you dutifully check the Sunday paper for a book review or even a small agate type mention of your masterpiece, but there is only silence from the critics. The radio stations are not calling to schedule interviews, and your water cooler colleagues complain (with veiled sarcasm) that they cannot find your book at B & N. You complain to the publisher, but the publisher is indignant and says they are doing the best they can. You begin to wonder…

It is a familiar lament, echoing across the industry from the mouths of a hundred thousand small press authors. Take heart and realize that amid your pessimism and mounting despair, you are building the foundation of a solid writing career. With one book already out there, you are in a far better position to find an established agent and hitch your star to a major New York publishing house. Your little book has opened doors that would otherwise remain shut had you not taken the chance with the small publisher, though you failed to see the rewards of it at the time.

Sometimes it takes years to be recognized among your peers and the reading community, but the more you write, the better known you will become. Persistence and optimism is the antidote to the "death of hope" and the opinions of gloomy agents. Write quality books, build a substantial body of work and the rewards will follow. I believe that.